e2bn E2BN
Victorian Crime and Punishment
HomePrisoner case studiesPrisoners19th Century JusticeTeachers Area

19th Century Justice homepage

 
Punishment and Rehabilitation

An Overview of Hard Labour

It was believed that prisoners should be put to work whilst in gaol but there was less agreement as to what the work should be.

In the early days of the 19th century, after publication of the Howard Report, it was believed a criminal had to be shown the value of working for a living and in some prisons they did productive work.

During the French Wars, prisoners of war in Dartmoor were allowed to make small tools and ornaments out of whalebone, to sell to passing visitors. Often prisoners worked for local businesses and were paid a small wage, so that they could buy a few items and save some money for their release. Prisoners in Bedford in the early 19th century were allowed to do this, with the prisoners earning small sums and the gaol taking a cut to pay for their keep.

The authorities were always suspicious that the gaol keeper could be making his own profit from this. By the mid 19th century it was believed that prison was meant to punish, not provide an income and so penal labour was fashionable. Work was meant to punish and break the prisoners will. Therefore the tasks were hard, monotonous and often pointless.

After 1865, even those imprisoned for less than three months had to do hard labour. Not only the prisoners at Bedford, but also the gaol lost most of their income as a result of this. These worthless forms of punishment were not abolished until 1898-1902. The tasks included:

The Tread wheel of Treadmill

The Tread wheel was introduced in 1818 to provide useful employment for prisoners. It consisted of a large hollow cylinder of wood on an iron frame with steps about 7 inches apart. The criminal, steadying himself by handrails on each side, trod on these, his weight causing the mill to revolve. Resistance was obtained by weights.

Originally these mills were used to produce something to give the prisoners a "sense of purpose". In some prisons the wheel drove a mill or pumped water, in Bedford Prison /Old House of Correction and the New House of Correction it drove a flour mill. In other prisons particularly after 1865 most treadmills had no purpose other than the effort required from the prisoners themselves to operate them. They were there to punish.

Prisoners usually did ten minutes on and five minutes off the tread wheel for up to ten hours. The work was done in silence. Prisoners were medically examined before being put to the wheel. Male prisoners condemned to hard labour had to spend at least 3 months of their sentence on the Wheel or Crank (see below).

In Bedford the authorities thought the idea was a great success. In case they slacked, convicts had to take set numbers of steps before every meal: until they had carried this out there was no meal for them

Shot drill

This was nother form of hard labour without reward. The prisoner had to lift a heavy iron cannon-ball, bringing it up slowly until it was on a level with their chest, then carry it a measured distance (usually 3 steps to the right), put it down move back three paces and repeat the task with another one. Warders shouted orders while prisoners, sweating profusely, moved cannon-balls with precision from one pile to another. Robert Evan Roberts, keeper of Bedford Gaol in 1868, complained that the shot drill and the crank (see below) were the only work he was allowed to give to 701 out of 842 prisoners passing through the gaol in the previous year.

The Crank

Crank labour was introduced as the separate system spread, including Bedford Gaol. It was a pointless soul distroying form of labour but one that could be carried out in the cell. The Crank consisted of a large handle with a counter. The prisoner had to do many thousands of turns a day without any product of their hard work. Sand or gravel was simply churned around a drum. The crank handle was attached to a set of cogs, which pushed a paddle through sand, and Warders could tighten up the crank, making it harder to turn: hence their nickname "screws". Each turn of the handle was recorded. Most prisoners had to complete 10000 turns a day. Meals came to depend on a required number of turns being performed. A prisoner needed 2000 to get breakfast 3000 for dinner and 3000 supper and a further 2000 before they could go to bed. Crank labour was considered particularly suitable for prisoners confined in isolation in their cells.

Picking oakum

Another type of hard Labour that could be carried out in solitary confinement was Oakum picking. To do this they had to pull apart tarred rope into its individual fibres so that they could be used again - hence the saying "money for old rope". Vast amounts were used to make ships watertight by the royal navy. This work made the hands bleed, and was very painful. Solitary prisoners also picked rags, separating different sorts of material and tearing them into strips.

Labour Gangs

Another form of hard labour that did not involve pointless activity was work on public utilities. It was mainly carried out by Convicts sentenced to penal servitude or those awaiting transportation. From 1863 the first nine months of penal servitude was spent in solitary confinement and then the remainder labouring on public works. This involved a variety of tasks from breaking stone, working in quarries and in the docks to building roads and even building new prisons.